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- Homo Sum, Volume 2. - 4/10 -
In a few instants he had knocked at the senator's door; hardly had he entered the house when Miriam's slight form passed across behind the pile of stones, and vanished swiftly and silently into the slaves' quarters. These were by this time deserted by their inhabitants, who were busy in the field, the house, or the quarries; they consisted of a few ill- lighted rooms with bare, unfinished walls.
The shepherdess went into the smallest, where, on a bed of palm-sticks, lay the slave that she had wounded, and who turned over as with a hasty hand she promptly laid a fresh, but ill-folded bandage, all askew on the deep wound in his bend. As soon as this task was fulfilled she left the room again, placed herself behind the half open door which led into the court-yard, and, pressing, her brow against the stone door-post, looked first at the senator's house, and then at Sirona's window, while her breath came faster and faster.
A new and violent emotion was stirring her young soul; not many minutes since she had squatted peacefully on the ground by the side of the wounded man, with her head resting on her hand, and thinking of her goats on the mountain. Then she had heard a slight sound in the court, which any one else would not have noticed; but she not only perceived it, but knew with perfect certainty with whom it originated. She could never fail to recognize Hermas' foot-step, and it had an irresistible effect upon her. She raised her head quickly from her hand, and her elbow from the knee on which it was resting, sprang to her feet, and went out into the yard. She was hidden by the mill-stones, but she could see Hermas lost in admiration. She followed the direction of his eyes and saw the same image which had fascinated his gaze--Sirona's lovely form, flooded with sunlight. She looked as if formed out of snow, and roses, and gold, like the angel at the sepulchre in the new picture in the church. Yes, just like the angel, and the thought flew through her mind how brown and black she was herself, and that he had called her a she-devil. A sense of deep pain came over her, she felt as though paralyzed in body and soul; but soon she shook off the spell, and her heart began to beat violently; she had to bite her lip hard with her white teeth to keep herself from crying out with rage and anguish.
How she wished that she could swing herself up to the window on which Hermas' gaze was fixed, and clutch Sirona's golden hair and tear her down to the ground, and suck the very blood from her red lips like a vampire, till she lay at her feet as pale as the corpse of a man dead of thirst in the desert. Then she saw the light mantle slip from Sirona's shoulders, and observed Hermas start and press his hand to his heart.
Then another impulse seized her. It was to call to her and warn her of his presence; for even women who hate each other hold out the hand of fellowship in the spirit, when the sanctity of woman's modesty is threatened with danger. She blushed for Sirona, and had actually opened her lips to call, when the greyhound barked and the dialogue began. Not a word escaped her sharp ears, and when he told Sirona that she was as good as she was beautiful she felt seized with giddiness; then the topmost stone, by which she had tried to steady herself, lost its balance, its fall interrupted their conversation, and Miriam returned to the sick man.
Now she was standing at the door, waiting for Hermas. Long, long did she wait; at last he appeared with Dorothea, and she could see that he glanced up again at Sirona; but a spiteful smile passed over her lips, for the window was empty and the fair form that he had hoped to see again had vanished.
Sirona was now sitting at her loom in the front room, whither she had been tempted by the sound of approaching hoofs. Polykarp had ridden by on his father's fine horse, had greeted her as he passed, and had dropped a rose on the roadway. Half an hour later the old black slave came to Sirona, who was throwing the shuttle through the warp with a skilful hand.
"Mistress," cried the negress with a hideous grin; the lonely woman paused in her work, and as she looked up enquiringly the old woman gave her a rose. Sirona took the flower, blew away the road-side dust that had clung to it, rearranged the tumbled delicate petals with her finger- tips, and said, while she seemed to give the best part of her attention to this occupation, "For the future let roses be when you find them. You know Phoebicius, and if any one sees it, it will be talked about."
The black woman turned away, shrugging her shoulders; but Sirona thought, "Polykarp is a handsome and charming man, and has finer and more expressive eyes than any other here, if he were not always talking of his plans, and drawings, and figures, and mere stupid grave things that I do not care for!"
The next day, after the sun had passed the meridian and it was beginning to grow cool, Hermas and Paulus yielded to Stephanus' wish, as he began to feel stronger, and carried him out into the air. The anchorites sat near each other on a low block of stone, which Hermas had made into a soft couch for his father by heaping up a high pile of fresh herbs. They looked after the youth, who had taken his bow and arrows, as he went up the mountain to hunt a wild goat; for Petrus had prescribed a strengthening diet for the sick man. Not a word was spoken by either of them till the hunter had disappeared. Then Stephanus said, "How much he has altered since I have been ill. It is not so very long since I last saw him by the broad light of day, and he seems meantime to have grown from a boy into a man. How self-possessed his gait is."
Paulus, looking down at the ground, muttered some words of assent. He remembered the discus-throwing and thought to himself, "The Palaestra certainly sticks in his mind, and he has been bathing too; and yesterday, when he came up from the oasis, he strode in like a young athlete."
That friendship only is indeed genuine when two friends, without speaking a word to each other, can nevertheless find happiness in being together. Stephanus and Paulus were silent, and yet a tacit intercourse subsisted between them as they sat gazing towards the west, where the sun was near its setting.
Far below them gleamed the narrow, dark blue-green streak of the Red Sea, bounded by the bare mountains of the coast, which shone in a shimmer of golden light. Close beside them rose the toothed crown of the great mountain which, so soon as the day-star had sunk behind it, appeared edged with a riband of glowing rubies. The flaming glow flooded the western horizon, filmy veils of mist floated across the hilly coast-line, the silver clouds against the pure sky changed their hue to the tender blush of a newly opened rose, and the undulating shore floated in the translucent violet of the amethyst. There not a breath of air was stirring, not a sound broke the solemn stillness of the evening. Not till the sea was taking a darker and still darker hue, till the glow on the mountain peaks and in the west had begun to die away, and the night to spread its shades over the heights and hollows, did Stephanus unclasp his folded hands and softly speak his companion's name. Paulus started and said, speaking like a man who is aroused from a dream and who is suddenly conscious of having heard some one speak, "You are right; it is growing dark and cool and you must go back into the cave."
Stephanus offered no opposition and let himself be led back to his bed; while Paulus was spreading the sheepskin over the sick man he sighed deeply.
"What disturbs your soul?" asked the older man. "It is--it was--what good can it do me!" cried Paulus in strong excitement. "There we sat, witnesses of the most glorious marvels of the Most High, and I, in shameless idolatry, seemed to see before me the chariot of Helios with its glorious winged-horses, snorting fire as they went, and Helios himself in the guise of Hermas, with gleaming golden hair, and the dancing Hours, and the golden gates of the night. Accursed rabble of demons!--"
At this point the anchorite was interrupted, for Hermas entered the cave, and laying a young steinbock, that he had killed, before the two men, exclaimed, "fine fellow, and he cost me no more than one arrow. I will light a fire at once and roast the best pieces. There are plenty of bucks still on our mountain, and I know where to find them."
In about an hour, father and son were eating the pieces of meat, which had been cooked on a spit. Paulus declined to sup with them, for after he had scourged himself in despair and remorse for the throwing of the discus, he had vowed a strict fast.
"And now," cried Hermas, when his father declared himself satisfied, after seeming to relish greatly the strong meat from which he had so long abstained, "and now the best is to come! In this flask I have some strengthening wine, and when it is empty it will be filled afresh." Stephanus took the wooden beaker that his son offered him, drank a little, and then said, while he smacked his tongue to relish the after- taste of the noble juice, "That is something choice!--Syrian wine! only taste it, Paulus."
Paulus took the beaker in his hand, inhaled the fragrance of the golden fluid, and then murmured, but without putting it to his lips, "That is not Syrian; it is Egyptian, I know it well. I should take it to be Mareotic."
"So Sirona called it," cried Hermas, "and you know it by the mere smell! She said it was particularly good for the sick."
"That it is," Paulus agreed; but Stephanus asked in surprise, "Sirona? who is she?"
The cave was but dimly lighted by the fire that had been made at the opening, so that the two anchorites could not perceive that Hermas reddened all over as he replied, "Sirona? The Gaulish woman Sirona? Do you not know her? She is the wife of the centurion down in the oasis."
"How do you come to know her?" asked his father.
"She lives in Petrus' house," replied the lad, "and as she had heard of your wound--"
"Take her my thanks when you go there to-morrow morning," said Stephanus. To her and to her husband too. Is he a Gaul?"
"I believe so--nay, certainly," answered Hermas, "they call him the lion, and he is no doubt a Gaul?"
When the lad had left the cave the old man laid himself down to rest, and Paulus kept watch by him on his son's bed. But Stephanus could not sleep, and when his friend approached him to give him some medicine, he said, "The wife of a Gaul has done me a kindness, and yet the wine would have pleased me better if it had not come from a Gaul."
Paulus looked at him enquiringly, and though total darkness reigned in the cave, Stephanus felt his gaze and said, "I owe no man a grudge and I love my neighbor. Great injuries have been done me, but I have for given--from the bottom of my heart forgiven. Only one man lives to whom I wish evil, and he is a Gaul."
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